MY FIRST REAL JOB, AFTER I ESCAPED FROM PUSHING a broom–which was the core of the curriculum at the Quality Park Envelope Company’s lEarn-the-Business-from-the-Ground (actually, the Floor)-Up Sales Training Program–was junior salesman. I was twenty-one. To me, an envelope was something you used when you didn’t wand your girlfriend’s parents to read the letter. Most of my other significant writings could be handled nicely by a picture postcard.
I studied the phone book for leads for a week. Then my father suggested that I might try to ingratiate myself with one of the battle-scarred veterans of the envelope wars on the sales staff. The next morning, I waited in the company parking lot, and after the first Cadillac rolled in, I followed the driver into the bullpen.
He was the least friendly man on the payroll. In the preceding week, I had not been able to get so much as a grunt out of him. While I stood at attention at his desk looking at the bottoms of his shoes, he casually finished a cup of coffee and the funny papers. they must have been extremely funny that morning, because he finally granted me the much-coveted grunt.
“I wonder if I might ask you a question?”I began.
“Is there any advice you might give me, to get started, I mean?”
“College boy, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes,” I said.
“Do you think your customers are? Is that why you wear that fancy little class ring?”
I hadn’t really thought about it, but obv;iously he noticed a lot more than I realized. About me. About our customers. In those days, most buyers didn’t have college degrees. I slipped the ring off my finger and into my pocket. Another grunt, somewhat friendlier. He got up from his desk and crooked his finger in a “follow me” motion.
“You’re not doing anything today,” he said. We went back into the parking lot, got into his car and to my amazement, drove to our arch-competitor’s plant three-miles away. Was I so hopeless that he was going to leave me on the doorstep of the Tension Envelope Company with a note pinned to my suit? “Here’s Harvey. Try and do something with him. God knows, we can’t.”
We parked about fifty yards away from Tension’s shipping department and waited until its trucks began to exit to make the day’s deliveries. The rest of the day, we followed those trucks. What leads we got! They even made a stop at one of my mentor’s best customer’s. He banged his head on the steering wheel. “When am I ever going to learn? Some buyers are liars. they like to let you think you’ve got all their business, because they don’t want to get locked into one supplier.” He could hardly wait to get back to the office to put together a new proposal based on the kind of volume he now realized the customer used.
What would you give to have your biggest competitor’s customer list? It’s right there, in front of your eyes. All you have to do is learn to work those mean streets.